Celebrating Diversity in Development: Q&A with Ken Miller
To celebrate Black History Month, AFP is interviewing several Black leaders of AFP.
Today we spotlight Ken Miller, CFRE founder and president of Denali FSP Fundraising Consultants in Anchorage, Alaska, and member of the AFP Alaska Chapter.
AFP: Ken, how did you get started in fundraising?
I got started in fundraising in 2010 when I lost my job as a facilities manager for a large convention center after snapping my Achilles tendon and being laid up for two months. One of my mentors said I should go down to Bean’s Café Social Services and interview for the executive director job there. So I did, and talked to the current executive director, who was quite surprised and told me that as far as he knew, his position wasn’t open. But he did have an open position in development, so of course I asked him, “What do I develop?” And that was my introduction to fundraising!
AFP: What was that experience like when you first started in fundraising? Was that an overwhelming experience, or it's something you took to immediately?
Ken: I'd been in sales since I graduated from college, and my first position was selling equipment from the 3M Corporation. Then I moved over to Kodak and had a myriad of other sales positions and management positions in the field. So, I was very familiar with sales.
I fell in love with fundraising literally within probably two to three days. The reason I did is because I'm very much into results. I looked at what they had been doing in the area of fundraising and I knew I could be successful in raising the amount of funds that were raised for that organization. And I had a lot of knowledge about policies and procedures from my sales background that I figured would be applicable in some ways to fundraising. It turned out really well!
AFP: That's great. I know that you're a consultant now, but are there a couple of organizations in between Bean's and starting your consulting firm?
Ken: No, I went straight from being a development director for Bean’s Cafe to being a consultant. I did really well at the organization, creating a team of four people over the next three years or so. We accomplished a lot. Then at one point, I was approached by a representative from the largest foundation in Alaska to become a consultant. I thought about it, spoke with my wife, and eight months later, in April of 2014, I went out on my own.
AFP: How did you feel, being out on your own, even though it sounds like you may have had some work lined up already?
Ken: It was scary—which is why it took me eight months to do it! But Bean's Café provided me with my first contract—that I would continue doing development as a contract fundraiser. I then picked up another contract right away, so it went fairly smoothly.
AFP: How many different clients are you usually working with typically? What do you feel is a good number for you, or does it depend?
Ken: I believe the most I've ever had at one time was 12, which was too many. I think my sweet spot is around four or five. But anything more than eight is a lot of work. There have been times that I've had to turn down work because I just don't have the capacity. So now, I’m looking to possibly expand my business and hire my first employee.
AFP: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in becoming a consultant?
Ken: I guess there are a few things, and I’ll list them. The first is, obviously, be competent and have expertise. Make sure you have a good track record before you go out on your own.
Two, you should have great interpersonal skills, because that’s a key part of the job, but also because you’re going to have to deal with criticism. People are paying you a good dollar and will be evaluating your capabilities all the time. Be prepared to deal with criticism both internally and externally, as well as how you respond to others who might have been critical of you.
You should be a self-starter as well and be good at being independent. I like to start in the office at 5 a.m. and get a lot done in the early morning. But whatever your schedule is, be a self-starter.
And finally, and this is a big one with me, be curious. If you're interested in being a consultant, are you still willing to learn? I'm learning all the time. I'm looking at blogs all the time. I'm going to listen to other people when they present. I'm always curious about how I can do my job better, but more importantly how I can offer more to the client because it's all about the client.
AFP: Has there anything that surprised you about being in consulting?
Ken: I'm surprised by a couple of things. Obviously, if you’re hiring a consultant, you need help in some aspect of your fundraising. And while I see some charities in Alaska doing well with grants or special events, I’m always surprised how challenging individual giving seems to be for many organizations. From identification to solicitation to cultivation, we as a profession have a lot of work to do in this area.
The other thing I’ve seen that seems to challenge a lot of charities and keep them from reaching their full potential is their database. I love working with data, and this is almost always a problem area for charities, whether it’s the system itself or how the charity is using it. For me, it’s a huge education area that AFP and others could emphasize.
AFP: What kind of identities and perspectives do you bring to your professional consulting work?
Ken: I always identify myself as an African American male, especially in our field where there's a dearth of African American males. I’m typically the only African American male in the room.
What this perspective brings to my work is that I always want to represent an African American male in the best way possible because the simple truth is, some people have biases toward us. There's more fear around Black men than any other group—that has been my experience anyway.
My story is that I’m a convicted felon. I’ve spent years on the street as an addict and drug dealer, and then years behind bars. It took a while, but I got cleaned up about 15 years ago. I made a decision that the person I wanted to be was soft and gentle. I heard a man in 1996 say, "I'm a soft and gentle man today,” at a meeting, and it stunned me because that’s not how we talked on the streets. But I made that decision to be that kind of man someday. I believe I am that man today.
AFP: How does that experience affect your work and your leadership? What kind of strengths did it give you?
I believe it gives me tolerance—what I see as an allowance of a person to be human and being able to accept them for where they're at in their life and journey. Hand-in-hand with that is acceptance—just acceptance of people and situations.
Both of those help me bond with people as well. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm very much a people person. I do a lot of group lunches. I bring people together to engage with one another and keep relationships strong.
I also feel I have an obligation to represent an African American male in the best way possible because we struggle so much to be “successful” in this world, however you define success. I have the external accoutrements of being successful, right? A good business, a large house, etc., but my main success is internal. The daily work I do. Helping others out. And being a soft and gentle man. And I want to show others, especially young Black men, that you can find your success, however you define it, whatever it is that you want.
AFP: You’ve touched on some aspects of leadership, but what do you think are some critical pieces of leadership?
Ken: I think a number of things make a good leader. One, the first thing I always want to do is establish and communicate our goals—as a charity, as a board, as a team or individual. What are we trying to achieve?
Second, you have to love people—working with and accepting people. Love their strengths, love their weaknesses, but love them and have a fervent desire for their best interest and best growth within whatever organization, board or committee that you're leading. The best leaders I've ever seen are individuals who allow people to make mistakes. Allow them to make it. Let them make the mistake and say, "Hey, I know we had a little setback here. What do you think we can do to modify this in the future? Can I give you this suggestion?” We need to let people take on big goals and then allow them to fail. They need to have that kind of space, tolerance and freedom.
Next would be integrity. I am huge on action. In the end, everything I've talked to you about, I have to show it in action. Your actions speak much larger. And if I say I'm going to do something, then I'm going to do my best to do that. And if I can't, then I will communicate that to you in timely matter.
The last two are self-esteem and courage. I believe a leader has to have high self-esteem because self-esteem is rooted in truth—the ability to take in information that is factual, see it for what it is, and make decisions on it. A leader also must be courageous. For me, that means having the ability to accept the possibility of pain, and a leader must have the ability to do things that can be painful—to themselves or to others.
AFP: You've been actively involved in AFP in several different capacities. What drew you to AFP, and why do you remain so involved?
Ken: What drew me to AFP, and continues to draw me, is the emotional support and bond from my colleagues and friends, and the opportunities the field and the nonprofit community have given me. I was out of the traditional work environment for nearly 20 years. I tell the story of when I came into fundraising, I had never seen an email. I didn't even know email existed, and I thought it was the coolest thing that was ever invented. That's how much I had been out of the system.
But the profession respected me. It paid me a fair salary, and when I became a consultant, I made a fair amount. All of that gave me such self-esteem—that I was providing for my family, which was super important to me.
Then there are the people. I just love the people in AFP—in my chapter and at the international level. When I come for ICON, or when I was on numerous AFP Global committees, I loved getting to meet people and see old friends, have lunch, share experiences and just have fun.
And I really love what I do in the community as well. For example, I have a goal for our profession: I want to see more African American males in the field. When I’m at ICON or a chapter function, I just come up to them and introduce myself and ask if they want to have lunch or go to an affinity meeting. Or if I’m having dinner with friends, I like to invite some younger African American professionals. I’ve found my success—even though I still have goals—but I want to share that and help others out as well.
AFP: What does Black History Month mean to you?
As an African American man, I look at Black History Month as a chance to remember and honor those that created, through their struggle for equality, the opportunities that I sometimes take for granted today. While the month is an official designation at the federal level, it is a time for me at the personal level to reflect on the sacrifices and the pain—often quite literally— that my predecessors had to endure as an African American in this country throughout its history. I also look at our accomplishments in the arts, sports, professions and academics, and honor the triumphs of my people in the face of great odds. It is a celebration of who I am, my people and our overcoming.
AFP: Thank you for your time, Ken, and we so much appreciate everything you are doing for AFP and the fundraising community!